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Baltimore Orioles

Orioles roster preview: As always, rotation enters spring training with opportunities and questions abound

With the Orioles kicking off spring training next week in Sarasota, Florida, an uneventful offseason for the rebuilding club will at least begin to be about baseball again.

Their rebuilding project, which yielded 108 losses and a handful of memorable moments in 2019, continues with what’s expected to be a similar 2020 season. But as they wait for the fruits of their focus on player development to make it to the majors, there are plenty of opportunities to impress for the players in big league camp.

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Each day this week, we’ll break down a position group that will get a chance to prove itself to executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde and the rest of the front office and coaching staff when spring training begins, with the first workout for pitchers and catchers Wednesday.

After rolling through the position players, next is the starting rotation, which features a few familiar faces but many more who are trying to prove they can pitch every fifth day.

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Who’s in camp?

At the winter meetings, Hyde said that he’d like to have eight starting rotation candidates at the start of spring training to really feel comfortable. He’ll have more than that. The question is how many are up to the challenge of holding down the rotation spot in the American League East.

John Means, Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski all have shown that they can do that, with Means and Wojciechowski doing as much last year and Cobb having a productive second half of 2018 with the Orioles before missing last year with a hip injury.

Veteran Wade LeBlanc, in camp on a minor league contract, provides experience and depth for a team that lacks both on the starting pitching front, with their only other rotation addition being 25-year-old right-hander Kohl Stewart. Stewart was a former high first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins and hasn’t delivered on that potential, but he has some major league experience and plenty of upside.

David Hess spent the last half of 2019 in the bullpen but could get another chance to reprise a rotation spot, while Rule 5 draft picks Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker will each get a long look because of their minor league starting experience.

Prospects Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer will get to make an impression as new additions to the 40-man roster, but for those two, plus nonroster invitees Zac Lowther, Alex Wells and Bruce Zimmermann, the invitation to camp as young starting pitchers is likely more a glimpse at what could be in their future than anything imminent.

It’s far more likely that fellow nonroster invitees Ty Blach, Tom Eshelman, Chandler Shepherd, Rob Zastrzyzny and Brady Rodgers will get a chance to make the team before the prospects do, based on the organization’s recent ways of doing business.

Who’s left?

The Orioles had 18 pitchers start games for them last season, some of them openers and many of them no longer in the fold. The loss of right-hander Dylan Bundy, who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in December for four pitching prospects, will hurt the most. Bundy led the Orioles with 30 starts and was embracing a new pitch mix that the team hoped would unlock the rest of his potential.

And though they coped with it during the season, the loss of veteran Andrew Cashner, who was traded in July to the Boston Red Sox, also should be noted. Those he left behind will hope that the top-of-the-line meat smoker he had in Sarasota is still around, though.

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Otherwise, Gabriel Ynoa, Aaron Brooks and Dan Straily started a combined 33 games — essentially representing one-fifth of their 2019 rotation — but none are back.

Who’s making the team?

As long as they’re healthy and make it through spring training, the assumption is Cobb, Means and Wojciechowski all will make the Orioles’ Opening Day rotation.

After that is anyone’s guess. LeBlanc is the kind of reliable veteran they hoped Straily would be when he signed last April, and will get ample time to show it. Stewart certainly has something the Orioles like, as they gave him a major league deal, but he also has a minor league option remaining and sometimes options work against a player in such situations. Hess, too, has an option remaining.

The same can’t be said for the Rule 5 picks, Bailey and Rucker, who have to remain on the 26-man roster all season or be returned to their former clubs. If Bailey, who the front office is plenty familiar with from their shared time with the Houston Astros, survives spring training, he could get the first crack at a rotation spot while those with options bide their time at Triple-A Norfolk.

Who could change that?

Of the prospect pitchers, Akin has a full season of Triple-A experience on his resume and held his own there, so it’s possible he can pitch his way into the rotation mix with a good camp. It’s far more likely that all of the pitchers in camp who still have their prospect status — Akin, Kremer, Lowther, Wells and Zimmermann — are midseason reinforcements, if they make it up this year at all.

While it would be hard to add LeBlanc and another nonroster pitcher to the 40-man roster at the end of camp, it’s far more likely that someone from the more experienced nonroster group (Blach, Eshelman, Shepherd, Zastrzyzny and Rodgers). There’s a familiarity factor with each. They are at the stage in their career where they’ve done all the developing they can in the minors, and they’re the types of players a rebuilding team trots out until their prospects are ready.

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So if someone goes down with an injury or the team needs depth early, they could crack the rotation early.

Who’s the future?

Depends on how far into the future you’re looking. If Akin, Kremer, Wells, Zimmermann and Lowther represent the Orioles’ Triple-A starters, all five are going to get a chance to hold down a rotation spot in the majors in the near future. Right-hander Michael Baumann, who shared the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award, isn’t far behind them in the high minors.

There’s plenty of talent below them, too. The team’s two first-round picks before catcher Adley Rutschman in 2019 — left-hander DL Hall in 2017 and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez in 2018 — are their top two pitching prospects. They only grow in esteem as they climb higher through the minors, and have spent the past two years progressing alongside Blaine Knight, Brenan Hanifee and 2016 first-round pick Cody Sedlock.

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The first class of pitchers drafted by Elias and the new front office in 2019 turned heads as well. The Orioles didn’t take too many pitchers early, but they knew what they were looking for. Combined with the prospects they acquired in trading Bundy and Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins, there will be a crunch to find innings for a group of pitchers the team is quite excited about.

SPRING TRAINING

Sarasota, Fla.

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Next Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 16: Position players report

Feb. 17: First full-squad workout

Feb. 23: First exhibition game vs. Atlanta Braves in North Port, Fla.


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